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Last Updated: Monday, 19 June 2006, 14:20 GMT 15:20 UK
New start for human rights at UN?
By Paul Reynolds
World Affairs Correspondent, BBC News website

Kofi Annan
Annan said the Council must avoid "political point-scoring"
The new UN Human Rights Council has the aim of re-invigorating the UN's approach to human rights but the problem of overcoming decades of past failures.

The Council, launched in Geneva on Monday, takes over from the discredited Human Rights Commission. That fell into such disrepute that the UN General Assembly actually speeded up a call for reform made by a high level group on the future of the United Nations.

The high level group suggested in its report at the end of 2004 that a Human Rights Council be set up "in the longer term".

Instead, acting with a speed rarely seen in the world body, the General Assembly established the Council by a vote in March this year and elected its members in May.

The old Commission was packed with human rights violators, who got on as part of regional lists. It met for six weeks only each year and nobody was impressed by its pronouncements.

New approach

The plan now is to change all that.

The 47 members (reduced from the 53 on the old Commission) have all been elected individually by secret ballot, though there are still quotas for each part of the world.

Most importantly, the Council will have the power to draw up reports on the human rights record of all UN member states, starting with members of the Council itself.

The hopes for the new Council were expressed at its launch by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan who had pressed hard for its establishment.

"The Council's work must mark a clean break from the past," he said. "Never allow this Council to be caught up in political point-scoring or petty manoeuvre."

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Louise Arbour added that the Council was "uniquely positioned to redress the shortcomings of the past."

Human Rights records

However, the sceptics are not without ammunition when they point to the presence on the Council of several countries with questionable human rights records.

It is worth noting what the 2006 annual report of Human Rights Watch had to say about some of these countries.

Azerbaijan: "Azerbaijan's government has a long-standing record of pressuring opposition political parties and civil society groups and arbitrarily limiting critical expression."

China: "While many governments have praised recent developments in China, the country remains a one-party state that does not hold national elections, has no independent judiciary, leads the world in executions, aggressively censors the Internet."

Pakistan: "Six years after seizing power in a coup d'etat, President Pervez Musharraf's military-backed government did little in 2005 to address ongoing human rights concerns."

Cuba: "Cuba remains a Latin American anomaly: an undemocratic government that represses nearly all forms of political dissent. President Fidel Castro, now in his forty-seventh year in power, shows no willingness to consider even minor reforms."

American attitudes

The United States argues that the reforms have not gone far enough and it refused to stand for election this time round.

The Council's work must mark a clean break from the past
Kofi Annan
Its distant attitude towards the Council is perhaps reflected by the fact that on the list of subjects on the State Department website, the Council, on the morning of its inauguration, was not mentioned at all. The reference was to the old Commission.

The US also fears that the Council will be another forum in which it is attacked - over Guantanamo Bay, torture allegations, rendition flights and other operations of its "war on terror" and the war in Iraq.

The Council is bound to get drawn into discussion of such issues, especially with its periodic review of all UN member states.

But its success or failure is likely to be judged by whether it manages to find a formula under which all violators are criticised, both large states and small.

This will not be easy.

Defining rights

The very definition of human rights still provokes fierce disagreements.

For example, Cuba, in the letter it, like all applicants, had to send to the General Assembly, made a point of defining human rights in its own terms.

It stated that "the most important attribute and right the Cuban people [had] achieved was the full exercise of its right to self-determination, facing the grave obstacles and threats derived from the unilateral policy of hostility, aggression and blockade imposed on it by the superpower."

If the new Council gets bogged down in slanging matches like the old Commission, it will not emerge into the leading world human rights champion its supporters envisage.

Nepal example

There was perhaps some hope evident on the opening day. It concerned Nepal, not a member of the Council itself, but a country whose record has certainly been attacked.

The Deputy Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Oli was able to report on the political progress it had achieved in the last few weeks since the repression of King Gyanendra had given way to dialogue.

Only last month, when elections to the Council were under way, the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch Kenneth Roth had included Nepal in his list of villains.

"The good news is that many of the worst violators - including Sudan, North Korea, Belarus, Zimbabwe, Uzbekistan, and Nepal - have not even dared to run for the new council."

Nepal has a way to go but might not be regarded as such a villain now.

Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk


BBC NEWS: VIDEO AND AUDIO
See Kofi Annan express his hopes for the new council



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New UN rights council put forward
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